Extreme Birds: The World's Most Extraordinary and Bizarre Birds

Extreme Birds: The World's Most Extraordinary and Bizarre Birds

by Dominic Couzens




Extreme Birds is a photographic showcase of 150 birds at the extremes of nature. It reveals nature's ingenuity and sometimes its sense of humor. The species in this book were chosen for their extraordinary characteristics and for behaviors far beyond the typical. They are the biggest, the fastest, the meanest, the smartest. They build the most intricate nests, they have the most peculiar mating rituals, they dive the deepest and they fly the highest. These are the overachievers of the avian world.

Some examples:

  • Most skilled nest builder: The tiny southern masked weaver reveals a surprising grasp of the principles of architecture. In just five days it weaves and knots thousands of fine grass strands to build a complex sphere-like nest that hangs from the tip of an overhead branch.
  • Deadliest enemy: The southern cassowary is big (140 pounds), tall (6 feet) and fast (30 mph). This flightless bird can also leap 5 feet into the air and has 5-inch long claws that are capable of stabbing and disemboweling a human being.
  • Most creative decorator: The blue bower bird creates an elaborate "bachelor pad" bower and decorates it with colorful baubles. Blue is preferred, and the shinier the better.

Enlivened with entertaining facts and anecdotes, Extreme Birds is an engaging celebration of nature's tremendous imagination. It will appeal to all readers, especially birders and naturalists.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781554079520
Publisher: Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date: 08/25/2011
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Dominic Couzens has written many books on birds and birding, leads specialized bird tours and is a regular contributor to Birdwatch and BBC Wildlife magazines.

Read an Excerpt


Most Patient Feeder

NAME shoebill Balaeniceps rex
LOCATION central Africa
ABILITY standing motionless for half an hour or more

You're not going to use a bill like this for anything ordinary. The aptly named shoebill of central Africa is a true specialist, feeding almost entirely on lungfish — big, sluggish fish of well-clogged, sheltered waterways. They are not easy to catch, being large and awkward to deal with, and it takes refinements of fishing technique, as well as of the bill, for the shoebill to be successful.

One of those refinements is the shoebill's extraordinary patience. In some ways its fishing mirrors the technique of herons, waiting by the waterside and eventually striking when prey comes near. But the shoebill takes the waiting much further,
sometimes staying completely still for more than half an hour; a heron, and any other stealth hunter for that matter, would have given up long before that. Observers watching shoebills feeding often miss the strike, having passed into a kind of torpor themselves.

The strike, when it comes, is a real all-or-nothing affair; it is often described as a "collapse." The shoebill lurches head first at the fish, and the rest of its anatomy follows. With a bill 7 1/2 inches (19 cm) long it scoops up a huge mouthful, frequently containing some of the lungfish's habitat as well — water, plants and all — and it may take some time before the hunter regains its balance. A lungfish constitutes an ample meal, and after feeding the shoebill can go for several days without food. In the life of this bird, it seems, a lack of impetuous hurry is the rule.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents


Extreme Form
Extreme Ability
Extreme Behavior
Extreme Families




Few groups of animals are as visible or abundant as birds. It is difficult to go outside without seeing at least a few, even if they are only pigeons or sparrows. Because of this, birds are perhaps the best known and appreciated of all wildlife.

Many avian record holders are both famous and obvious. The largest mammal might be hidden away under the sea, and the largest snake might keep to itself, but you cannot miss an ostrich wandering over the African savanna. It can't miss you, either, because its eyes are five times as big as yours, the largest of any vertebrate. Meanwhile, the bird with the largest wingspan, the wandering albatross, is a household name and a symbol of the destruction we have wrought in the oceans, while the feats of the fast-flying peregrine falcon and the deep-diving emperor penguin are well known to many enthusiasts.

However, if you delve deeper into the world of birds, you will find some astonishing feats that are not so well known. There is a bird, for example, that can sleep for 100 days, and another that can fly without stopping for a minimum of four years. There are those that can hear in three dimensions and spot a rodent from a mile away, and others that can fly to heights of 30,000 feet (9,000 m) without any side effects. Still others use their mouths as thermometers. Despite the fact that birds are much less physically and physiologically variable than many other animals — as a result of the constraints placed upon them by the need to fly — they still manage to take their body plan and abilities to every possible extreme.

Once we begin to look into the behavior of birds we find even more surprises. Here the "extremes" might not be so obvious, but the ways in which birds live and solve their problems are no less remarkable. Take the Arctic owls that cache the bodies of rodents for later consumption and then defrost them by sitting on them as they would eggs, or the small African parrot that carries its nest material in the feathers of its back, leaving its wings free for flight. The behaviors of birds — those small nuances of difference that have arisen to give a competitive advantage — are a mine of intrigue and astonishment.

Nowhere is this more obvious than during reproduction. Birds, it seems, will go to any lengths to get their genes passed on, be it by rape, deception or parasitism — and sometimes by all three within the same species. Yet while the young may be cosseted inside nests with exceptional insulating properties, they may also be summarily abandoned when conditions for breeding go awry. Young birds don't just sit there and accept what comes to them either; some deliberately kill their siblings, and others may fire lazy parents. Acts of desperate survival are everywhere.

No book of this kind is possible without its source material, so I must thank a group of people whose labors are sometimes overlooked — the researchers. It is they who put in the hard hours of effort and inquiry that may ultimately translate into a single sentence on the page of a book. There is no record without someone to measure it, and no discovery of previously unknown behavior without someone in the field to look and wonder. This book is really a tribute to the researchers' efforts.

It has become fashionable in recent times for every wildlife book to make a plea about conservation, but in this case repetition is apposite, and I make no apology for raking over the obvious once again. A number of the species in this book, including the wandering albatross, the Andean condor, the hooded grebe and the aquatic warbler, have low populations and are close to extinction. They are not included here for their rarity, of course, but for some extreme of lifestyle or behavior. The very fact, however,
that every bird book records characteristics that are in danger of being lost is merely symptomatic of how carelessly we have treated our world. I hope that, in its small way, Extreme Birds will help fight against this trend and spread a little delight in the feathered creatures with which we share this planet.

Dominic Couzens
Dorset, England, April 2008

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